K. Owen White's distinguished ministry included a fruitful pastorate at First Baptist Church of Houston, TX, and an influential presidency over the Southern Baptist Convention in 1964, in the midst of the Elliott Controversy that foreshadowed the Conservative Resurgence. White's sermon "Death in the Pot" was the most prominent whistle blowing to warn the convention of the liberal contents of Elliott's The Message of Genesis. White's sermon "The Meaning of Church Membership" came out a full decade before "Death in the Pot." Styles of preaching were a bit different back then, but I find it interesting to see way back in the early 1950s a concern about weakening concepts of church membership.
I offer for your edification K. Owen White's sermon, "The Meaning of Church Membership."
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Some months ago I read in a newspaper the account of the death of a prominent citizen. The column beneath his picture was three or four inches in length and listed the organizations to which he belonged, the positions which he had filled, and the honors which had been bestowed upon him. There was one notable exception. In all that was said of him, there was not a word about his church! Something is tragically wrong when a man leaves the Lord and the church out of his life or when the members of his family regard his church membership as incidental and secondary to his other affiliations.
Christ said nothing at all about lodges, clubs, and associations; but he did say, "I will build my church." Granted that there are various organizations which have commendable features and engage in worth-while activities. But at the best they are only human organizations, which Christ's church is a divine institution.
Gates of hell can never
'Gainst that church prevail;
We have Christ's own promise,
And that cannot fail.
There is no substitute for membership in a New Testament church. Someone may ask, What is a New Testament church? The answer is that it is one which faithfully follows the pattern laid down in God's Word. It may be large or small, it may be rich or poor, it may be in our own community or in another land, but if it is patterned after the churches described in the New Testament, it is worthy of recognition as a New Testament church.
Another question may logically follow: What is the meaning of church membership? And that is precisely the question we want to consider. To answer it, we must go to the only source of authority we know—the new Testament itself. The Four Gospels tell us what "Jesus began both to do and to teach." Acts records what he continued to do through the leadership of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of his people. The epistles and Revelation give us a clear picture of Christ's plan and purpose for his church.
If anyone should ask whether the church itself, or membership in the church, is important, the reply is that "Christ…loved the church, and gave himself for it" (Eph. 5;25). he purchased it "with his own blood" (Acts 20:28). He wants it to be "a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing" (Eph. 5:27). "He is the head of the body, the church" (Col 1:18). The church is also referred to as "the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).
The glorious truth which ought to stir the heart of every one of us is that unworthy, sinful men and women like ourselves, having been saved by grace, through faith, are privileged to be members of such a body.
What is the significance of joining the church? Why join anyhow? When we have joined, what does it mean?
A Vital Experience of God's Grace
Membership in a New Testament church presupposes a new birth—a spiritual birth. A church is not just a group of people who are congenial. It is a body of believers. Though they may differ in many respects, the one thing which they must hold in common is a personal faith in Christ as Lord and Saviour.
The one essential prerequisite for membership in the church is regeneration. "Regeneration is the act of God in which he renews in us the image of God." No unsaved person ought to seek membership in the church. No church should knowingly receive an unsaved person into its membership. Salvation and church membership are not synonymous. Salvation is the gift of God. Church membership is a matter of obedience and loyalty upon the part of one already saved by grace.
While pastor in Washington, D.C., I received this letter from a young woman: "Last night I heard your service over the radio. I have been a member of another faith since I was a little child but I know that I am not saved. I want to be a Christian, and I wish you would come and show me how." A visit to her home found her eager and anxious to know how to become a Christian. She gladly accepted the Lord and within a few days came forward in the church when the appeal was made and followed the Lord in baptism.
For years this woman had been a church member but not a Christian. She marveled at the truth that all she needed to do was to trust in the Lord.
Belonging to a New Testament church means, first of all, that we belong to Jesus. We are not our own; we are bought with a price. Nothing can be more important than to begin aright. "As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12-13).
An Open Profession of Faith in Christ
As a lad I did not have the privilege of attending or belonging to a church. We lived so far back "in the sticks" that there were no churches within many miles of us. It would have meant much to me at the time I made a profession of faith if I could have followed it up with a public profession before a whole congregation of people. I was sixteen years of age before I had the privilege of belonging to a church with a regular schedule of activities. I was nineteen years old when the study of the New Testament in a nondenominational school made a Baptist out of me!
The book of Acts indicates that the normal procedure is for new converts—young Christians—to join the church immediately. The response to the gospel message and appeal on the day of Pentecost was marvelous. "And the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls" (Acts 2:41). The work went on and the response to the appeal continued. "And the Lord added to their number [the church] day by day those who were being saved" (Acts 2:47 RSV).
Church membership provides an opportunity for an open, public profession of faith in Christ, who has clearly said, "Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven" (Matt 10:32). But have not some of the Lord's people forgotten that this public confession of Christ should be continuous? It begins when a man joins the church, but it ought to continue to the end of his life. Paul calls attention to the example of our Lord who "witnessed a good confession" (1 Tim. 6:13) before Pontius Pilate. What sort of confession are we witnessing day by day? Having joined the church, have we neglected and forgotten it?
Can you think of any finer way that a Christian can give a clear witness to his faith than by identifying himself openly with a church, becoming a part of that church, and investing everything possible in the life of that church?
Obedience to His Clear Commands
A New Testament Baptist church has been defined as a body of baptized believers, equal in rank and privilege, banded together for fellowship and service, administering its own affairs under the lordship of Christ. It is important to remember that all of our work is under his lordship. Someone has said: 'Christ must be Lord of all if he is to be Lord at all."
If I have trusted Jesus as Savior as professed my faith in him before others, I have thereby said to him and to them that I belong to Christ. Therefore I am under solemn obligation to seek and to do his will.
During the Napoleonic wars when the armies of France were deep in Russian territory, a group of French soldiers captured a Russian gunner known as One-eared Michael. That night when sheltering in the old barn and blacksmith shop, one of the soldiers heated up the forge and fashioned a branding iron with the letter N. Thinking to have some fun with their prisoner who had refused to give them any information concerning his friends, they heated the iron red-hot. Opening the fingers of their prisoner's left hand, they pressed the searing iron into the palm of his hand and said to him gleefully, "Now you belong to Napoleon."
Seizing an ax which lay before him, with one swift blow the gunner severed his hand from his arm and drawing himself up proudly said, "Take what belongs to your emperor. As for me, I belong wholly and absolutely to the Czar."
Oh, let it be remembered by every Christian that by right of redemption he belongs wholly and absolutely to the Lord Jesus Christ! Every wish of his divine Lord becomes an absolute command for him.
What are Jesus' commands to his people? To his churches he has given two ordinances. Both testify of him. Both of them set before us in vivid imagery the facts of the gospel. He expects us to remember and to observe them, to cherish them in their original form and meaning, and to maintain them as memorials to him.
What a glorious experience it is for the one who has just been saved to follow his Lord into the waters of baptism, to hear the words "buried with him…risen with him," and to know that he has taken the first step of obedience to his new-found Lord! Baptism is for believers only. Faith is the way of entrance into God's kingdom, and baptism upon a profession of such faith is the way of entrance into the church.
Yet this is only the beginning. When one has come into the church, the candle of testimony has been lighted; but it must be burned down to the socket.
Baptism is the initial ordinance; but there is given to us another, the continuing ordinance, the Lord's Supper. Lest our hearts should grow cold, lest we should forget the price of our redemption, we are commanded by our Lord to assemble as oft as we will to share in a simple yet glorious memorial to him.
Another command is given to us which is overlooked by many of his people. It is: "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together" (Heb. 10:25). There are too many empty seats, too many vacant pews!
An empty seat (unless it is empty for some good reason) means an added wound in the heart of Christ. It means a broken appointment. It means a vote against the church. It means victory for Satan and the forces of evil. It means that temporarily at least the lamp of some member's testimony has flickered. It means that the sense of personal responsibility has died out.
Yes, church membership means obedience to his commands. Can we, dare we forget his command to witness for him? To his own people, to the members of the churches, he is continually saying, "Ye shall be my witnesses" (Acts 1:8).
The witness which you and I give is the sum total of the influence of our whole lives.
Fellowship with His People
Membership in the church means fellowship with other Christians. In Jerusalem, after Pentecost, believers by the thousands identified themselves with the church. It was a personal relationship. It was a continuing relationship, for "they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayer" (Acts 2:42).
Let us break that statement down for a moment and look at it. "They continued steadfastly." Some folks transfer their membership from one church to another and that is all. Their church letter is in the file. The name is on the roll. The individual goes no further and grows no more spiritually.
Steadfastness is one of the characteristics of a growing Christian. Physical growth depends upon nourishing food and regular exercise; so does spiritual growth. Those early Christians continued "in the apostles' doctrine." Their souls were nourished, their hearts were warmed, their faith was strengthened, their lives were enriched by constant contact with the gospel message. Christians need to know the outstanding doctrines of their faith, but these doctrines must be related to life in a practical way.
The early Christians continued in the apostles' fellowship. That is simply another way of saying that they were with them as frequently and continuously as possible. They went to church.
In a former pastorate I was visiting in a little grocery store across the town from our church. One of our members owned the store. As we talked, a young woman came in. The owner said, "Here is one of your members, Dr. White, but I don't know whether you have met her."
I had not and I knew it; so I said, "How long has it been since you were in our church?"
She furrowed her brow and said slowly: "Well, let's see, I was married five years ago in July. I don't think I have been there since I was married."
Yet she professes to love the Lord and holds membership in the church and is well able to come! Somehow fellowship has been broken.
Those early Christians continued in "breaking of bread, and in prayers." If the reference to breaking of bread refers to the Lord's Supper, then it ought to smite the conscience of some who never join with their fellow believers at the Lord's table. If it refers to a wholesome friendship which brought them close together in one another's homes, then it is a practice that might well be encouraged.
Those early Christians continued in prayer. Fellowship finds its greatest heights in fervent, united prayer. How many real prayer meetings do we have? What percentage of our people attend the midweek service? How many really know how to pray?
What a thrilling thing it is to read again the record of the victories won by prayer in the early days. "These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication…And they continued steadfastly…in prayer…Peter and John went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer…and when they heard that, they lifted up their voice to God with one accord…And when they had prayed, the place was shaken."
How well do I remember an occasion when revival services were being held and day after day passed by with no professions of faith. Thursday evening of the first week arrived, and after the service the pastor's heart was so heavy that he called his Sunday school superintendent.
In the shadows of the front porch they sat for a few moments talking and then went into the darkened front room of the pastorium and knelt together and prayed.
The next morning two high school girls made professions of faith, and at the evening service almost a dozen came on profession of faith. Forty-three people were baptized before the meeting was over. Was it because two men agonized in prayer that night until long past midnight?
Church membership involves fellowship with other Christians. It means "continuing steadfastly." It means going to church when it is hot and going to church when it is cold. It means going when it rains and going when it snows, when the road are good and when they are bad. It means going to church when one feels like it and when one does not feel like it. That's when he needs it most! Without the fellowship of other Christians, his heart may grow cold and careless.
Faithful, Consistent Service for Christ
There is something seriously wrong with church membership that does not result in supreme loyalty to Christ and express itself in fruitful, faithful service.
The churches of the New Testament are described as colonies of heaven in a world of sin. People who associate with Christians ought to be conscious of their presence. Christians ought to be different. Paul challenges Christ's followers to be "blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world" (Phil 2:14 RSV).
Through all the centuries the call of Christ to his people has rung out clearly: "Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing" (2 Cor. 6:17).
A bewildered, confused, materialistic world is skeptical of spiritual realities and needs desperately the witness of clean-cut Christian lives which are different. It demands something tangible, something it can see and feel!
"No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier" (2 Tim. 2:4). Christians lose spiritual power and energy, churches bog down, and the world suffers because of worldly encumbrances and entanglements.
Beer, cocktails, tobacco, gambling, Sunday sports, roadhouses, dance halls, and other worldly amusements find no place in the life program of the one who wholeheartedly desires to please Him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.
High are the privileges but great are the responsibilities of church membership! Church membership involves discipleship in its highest form. It says to us that "denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ; who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works" (Titus 2:12-14).